The best gadget you never needed

Having mostly single guy friends has its ups and downs. The downside is the notable increase in your use of the term “vicariously.” The upside is that your kid gets some really interesting gifts (a shoeshine box… it’s like your very own entrepreneur starter kit!). On his 4th birthday, one of my buddies got Marcus a set of walkie-talkies. Not Power Rangers or GI Joe play sets, but real 22-channel, 3-mile range, work crew walkie-talkies. They definitely scored high on the oooo factor with Marcus, but he couldn’t fully grasp the concept of pushing the button to talk and letting go of it to listen. And on that same day he actually did get a GI Joe accessory, which required less coordination and produced a wider spectrum of cool noises.

So, up on the bookshelf they went for a more age-appropriate day. For a year and a half they sat. Then Marcus learned to ride a bike. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t simply trot a safe distance behind him while he did his thing. He could now leave me in the dust, the symbolic first step toward 18. As it turned out, this year and a half also represented a quantum leap forward in terms of his ability to operate computers, iPods and communications equipment.

And so the lesson began, starting with a review on the push-to-talk concept, which is actually a bit tricky if you’ve been using cell phones your entire life. Although completely redundant, given that today’s walkie-talkies beep when you release the talk button, I taught him to say “over” whenever he was done talking, and to listen for my “over” before he could start talking. This unexpectedly added a layer of make-believe to this endeavor. “It’s like army!” he excitedly added. Hmm… OK this might just work. I dug deep into my childhood repertoire of CB radio lingo that was so much a part of my pop culture environment in the 70’s. In just a few minutes (with CW McCall’s Convoy looping incessantly in my head), he had it down: 10-4, do you copy, what’s your 20, mayday, over and out, breaker-breaker 1-9…

Field test #1:

Marcus and I are at Lacy Park, one of the few public areas where I feel safe letting Marcus roam beyond my immediate kicking range (kidnapper paranoia ... it’s my affliction). It has an entrance with a guard shack (granted, the guard is a retiree who no doubt subscribes to my dad’s credo ‘once you stop working you start dying,’ but it’s a deterrent nonetheless) and a nice 1/3 mile bike path encircling an open grass field. Marcus has no pockets, but that works to our advantage. He clips the walkie-talkie to his collar. Now he can radio for backup – cop style! At that moment, as if on cue, a voice comes crackling through the speaker:

“Suspect spotted on Duarte and Mountain firing a bb gun … units respond…"

Marcus’ eyes light up. Reaching across his body for the button and tilting his head like a 1-Adam-12 Jr., he answers.
“Hey… this is Marcus. I’m just a kid. I’m in the park right now…over.”

I’m not sure if they could hear him, but they did a good job ignoring him. Moments later, another dispatcher:
“Suspect driving without a license… could be under the influence.”

“Excuse me… I’m just a kid… over… um… stop calling me, OK? I’m gonna ride my bike now … over… and out.”

I entertain the thought of letting this continue for my own amusement, but in the interest of public safety, I break it to him that other people actually share the channels that we picked.

The rest of the afternoon proves to be a success. I get to kick back on the grass and radio snippets of encouragement to him as he races around the path. Of course, I make sure to remind him not to respond. “Fury, DO NOT ANSWER THIS… pedal like the wind son! Way to rip through the mud puddle! Rock on!.. over and out.”

Guess which one's his?

Field test #2

The next morning Marcus and I are on our way to the local Pavilions supermarket. It’s a “Dad and me” tradition that we’ve shared since before he could walk. Every weekend, I’ll take him to the Starbucks inside the market and have coffee (he gets the vanilla milk, straight up) and baked goods. On this particular morning, I need to pick up a few items in the supermarket. Perfect walkie-talkie opportunity. We arrive at Starbucks, say our hellos, order our usual and sit down.

“OK, Fury. I have to get a few things. Here is your walkie-talkie. You’ll be alright sir?”
“Yes sir!”

Now, usually I wouldn’t leave him alone at any old in-store Starbucks (kidnappers are just waiting for the day I do that!), but Marcus is well connected here. He is friends with pretty much all the Starbucks girls (and has been for at least three employee-turnover generations), and they’ve always been helpful, keeping an eye on him when I’ve had to make short grocery runs during our coffee time. They’re the best – so you'll never hear me complaining when coffee goes up a nickel every 3 months.

List in hand, I set off. I make it 10 yards…
“Dad, what’s your 20? Over…”
I’m amused. This is too cool! “Right by the granny smith apples, over.”
“I know. I see you. Over and out.”

I’m selecting toilet paper…
“Hi Dad. What’s your 20? Over…”
“Toilet paper aisle, little buddy. Is everything OK? Over…”
“Yes. Over and out.”

I make my way to the deli counter…
“Yes, can I have a half pound of -- ”
“Dad, come in. What’s your 20? Do you copy? Over…”
“(excuse me) At the deli son… over.” I try to mumble the “over” because I’m thinking I must look pretty silly talking like a truck driver while buying Sara Lee Honey Roasted Turkey Breast.
“What are you doing at the deli counter? Over…”
“Just buying deli stuff…” I chicken out altogether with the “over.”
“10-4. Over and out!”

“… and a quarter pound of muenster --”
I, along with half the store can now hear him shouting, and then enjoy it a split second later coming through my speaker. Rowdy kid – now in stereo!

Well, at least I know he was safe and happy the entire time.

My Findings:

Walkie-talkies may be antiquated and awkward in light of today’s do-everything cell phones, but they’re resilient, replaceable, cheap, and apparently do one thing well: make both parties sound like field commanders coordinating a raid. If that doesn’t get your kid to voluntarily stay in contact with you, nothing will.